Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Major League Soccer: Back To The Minors

Recall that British soccer superstar David Beckham signed a big deal with the L.A. Galaxy of Major League Soccer, as part of the MLS 'Designated Player' campaign to bring in some foreign stars by allowing every team to sign a foreign player at a cost written off from the league's salary cap.

MLS has yet to show a consistent profit as a league after $350 million in collective losses since its 1993 founding. With the Designated Player rule, the obvious goal for MLS was to add some star power and credibility to the league. Along with the construction of many manageably-small soccer venues (teams previously had to play many of its matches in converted American football stadiums in front of sparse crowds), MLS got a boost from the DP rule, as talented stars such as Marcelo Gallardo (DC United), Juan Pablo Ángel (NY Red Bull), Cuauhtémoc Blanco (Chicago Fire) and of course Beckham came over for big contracts to add some star power and talent to their respective clubs.

Beckham was the centerpiece of this talent expansion. Beckham's arrival drew big crowds in L.A., even when dubious injuries prevented him from playing more than sparingly in his matches. Beckham's addition not only boosted Galaxy's finances, but the viability of the league as a whole, as clubs drew big crowds at their fields with fans paying to see Beckham on the road.

Despite this, MLS teams continue struggling to pay the bills, especially given the large contracts handed to these imported superstars. During this offseason, Galaxy took some money from Italian superclub AC Milan to loan Beckham's services to them, a common transaction in world soccer that typically benefits all sides. In this case, Galaxy gets valuable capital (in part to help pay Beckham's $32.5 million contract), Beckham gets some work in to stay in shape, and Milan gets themselves one of the best players in the world to help their midfield for a couple months.

Looks like the move will backfire for Galaxy and MLS, big time.

GLASGOW, Scotland (AP)—David Beckham wants to leave the Los Angeles Galaxy and stay with AC Milan after his loan to the Italian club is scheduled to end next month.

The 33-year-old English midfielder announced his intentions Wednesday after playing in Milan’s 2-2 exhibition tie at Glasgow Rangers. Beckham has scored twice for Milan and been included in the team’s 25-man roster for UEFA Cup games against Werder Bremen on Feb. 18 and 26.

His three-month loan is due to end March 8.

“At the moment my lawyers are not talking to the Galaxy,” Beckham said. “But I have expressed my desire to stay at AC Milan now, and it’s just down to Milan and Galaxy to come to an agreement.”

“I have enjoyed my time here,” he added. “I knew I would enjoy it but I didn’t expect to enjoy it as much as I have and do as well as I have.”

Beckham is about two years into a $32.5 million, five-year contract with Major League Soccer. The Galaxy had no immediate comment.

He's basically gone. Milan certainly welcomes him, and if Beckham wants to go, he will go and every side will find a way to make it legally work.

Now, like most superclubs, Milan is drowning in €€€€€€ and will probably not only eat Beckham's contract, but pay Galaxy a healthy transfer fee. The short term is not a huge issue for Galaxy. They'll find someone functional to replace him in the midfield (they already had to do so much of the time anyway due to Beckham's injuries) and should manage to stay competitive in 2009.

The big problem is that Beckham was by proxy the league's largest draw, and now he is gone. The big problem MLS battled as they struggled to stay afloat was credibility: MLS was seen as less than second rate to the EPL's, Bundesligas and Serie A's of the world. Signing a superstar like Beckham was seen as a coup by MLS, a sign that they were shedding their not-quite-second rate label and making their move to become one of the world's great soccer leagues. And then Becks, on a simple loan to a Euro club, now says he wants to leave, essentially to play for a real FC. It's the sort of Mickey Mouse dismissal that MLS had to be afraid of with these high priced designated players.

True, the other clubs haven't lost their designated players (DP's), and it's likely many of those DP's see out the terms of their contracts and add significant on-field value for their clubs, while maybe even helping sell a few extra tickets. And Beckham certainly isn't doing this out of any malice, nor did he necessarily see his tenure with Galaxy as some stepping stone to a role with a top European club. But David Beckham was the crown jewel of the MLS Designated Player movement, the great world-recognized status symbol that MLS was on their way up the chain.

And now he's on his way out, soon to leave the Galaxy, and MLS, holding a bag full of transfer money with bills to pay, seats to fill and no idea what to do next.

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